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Toronto Blue Jays move into future with Vernon Wells at centre of franchise
TORONTO (CP) – The “sticker shock” was intense. But the Blue Jays came to feel the US$126-million, seven-year contract extension for Vernon Wells is market value for a franchise player.
And despite the jaw-dropping size of the deal, the Jays believe they still have payroll room to manoeuvre elsewhere while locking up a player some believe, is just starting to become the superstar he can be. The 28-year-old batted .303 with 32 home runs and 106 RBIs last season and won his third straight Gold Glove Award. He’s the rare breed of ball player who can win games with both his bat and glove.
He’s also a reserved but highly respected clubhouse leader, someone who maintains an even keel in all situations and commands respect from his peers.
Underlining that leadership is the way he structured his contract, which starts in 2008 and gives the Blue Jays the fiscal wiggle room to keep adding more talent.
Wells’ deal is the sixth-richest in baseball history. And it’s believed to be the biggest ever handed out by a sports team in Canada.
He gets a $25.5-million signing bonus payable in three equal instalments on March 1 in 2008, 2009 and 2010. His salary is just $500,000 in 2008 and $1.5 million in 2009 before climbing to $12.5 million in 2010 and $23 million in 2011. The final three seasons are worth $21 million apiece.
That leaves the Blue Jays with a pricey but manageable core of six players – Wells, Halladay, A.J. Burnett, B.J. Ryan, Frank Thomas and Troy Glaus – that will cost them about $60 million in 2007, $61 million in 2008, $57 million in 2009 and $58 million in 2010.
“I think this will be Roy (Halladay) and Vernon’s team as long as they’re here,” said general manager J.P. Ricciardi. “Roy will always be the guy the pitchers look up to and I think Vernon will be the guy the everyday players look up to.”
And he’s the player expected to lead them back to the post-season for the first time since 1993.
“The biggest thing was leaving flexibility for this team to get better over the next few years,” said Wells. “By no means did I want to sign here and hinder this team from getting better.”
The Jays are expected to have a payroll in the neighbourhood of $100 million over that span – the team doesn’t plan to publicly announce a figure this season, it was about $76 million last year – so Ricciardi should have enough room to build a solid roster around them.
Wells’ salary won’t jump until 2011, when he becomes the only Blue Jay under contract.
“We can work around that, which is what we wanted to do,” said Ricciardi.
The new deal also contains a no-trade clause and an opt-out provision after the 2011 season.
Wells is under contract in 2007 for $5.6 million – part of the $14.7 million, five-year deal he signed before the 2003 season – and would have been eligible for free agency after the season. He could have commanded even more money on the open market but instead Wells, with the help of his agent Greg Genske, settled on a number and an accepted when offered to him.
“I’m not going out there to try and make a name for myself in that way,” Wells said of trying to break the bank next fall.
“For me to be selfish, to be greedy and want more and more, this is plenty. My kids can’t spend all this money, this is enough to set my family up for the rest of their lives.”
Team president Paul Godfrey said he needed “smelling salts and someone to prop me up to give them to me,” when Vernon Wells’ representatives first floated the idea of an extension some three months ago.
“We know the contract was going to be high,” he said Monday “But it’s like going to buy a house or a car, the sticker shock always takes you back. That’s why deals aren’t made overnight.”
It wasn’t until this fall’s frenzied off-season spending began around the majors that the Blue Jays realized the numbers were simply reflective of an industry awash in cash. The $136-million, eight-year contract the Chicago Cubs gave Alfonso Soriano and the $100-million, six-year deal between Carlos Lee and the Houston Astros were among the key eye-openers.
Once the Blue Jays examined all the facts it became clear that Wells was asking for a fair market price (staggering as it is) and that they’d have to meet it to retain the all-star centre-fielder.
“Soriano and Lee are both great ball players,” said Godfrey. “But when you compare their stats to his stats offensively and defensively, Wells is the type of player we thought fit in long-term with this organization.”
On Dec. 8, Wells’ 28th birthday, the Blue Jays called their marquee man and told him they would meet his contract demands. Talks gained momentum last week, with an agreement in principle reached late Thursday and the contract completed Friday, tying him to the franchise through 2014.
The agreement dwarfs the Blue Jays’ previous largest contract, a $68-million, four-year pact with Carlos Delgado in the fall of 2000, and more than doubles the richest deal ever handed out by Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi, the $55 million over five years given to pitcher A.J. Burnett last winter.
Among contracts in Canada, it eclipses the $94-million, six-year deal the Toronto Raptors gave Vince Carter in the summer of 2001, which at the time was believed to be the biggest deal north of the border.
Compared to his peers in the majors, Wells’ deal ranks behind only those given to Alex Rodriguez ($252 million for 10 years), Derek Jeter ($189 million for 10 years), Manny Ramirez ($160 million for eight years), Todd Helton ($141.5 million for 11 years) and Soriano.
He’s the 13th player to get a nine-figure contract.
Wells’ first reaction was shock when the Blue Jays called him and told him they were willing to meet his price and hanging up the phone, it hit Wells that he was on the verge of becoming a very, very rich man.
“I got emotional just because this was actually happening, you’re actually sitting back and thinking about the situation and what they’re committing to you, it’s a lot of money,” Wells said. “You start thinking about your kids you start thinking about everything else.”
Wells is unconcerned with the added expectations his new-found wealth will bring.
“Once I get on the field, money doesn’t matter,” said Wells. “I go out and play the game no matter if I’m making the minimum or making whatever I’m going to be making. I take pride in this game. I’m going to struggle and I’ll be the first to tell you if I’m doing poorly …
“I’ll take the good with the bad and hopefully everybody will do the same. If not, I can deal with it. I’m a big man and I can take the criticism.”
Aside from buying a house in suburban Toronto, Wells has no big expenditures planned. He will make a $1-million donation to the team-run Jays Care Foundation over the duration of the deal and plans to deepen his involvement in other charitable causes.
Other than that, he’s just glad he’s another step closer to finishing his career in Toronto.
“This gives me the possibility of doing that,” he said. “It would be great to be a Blue Jay for life and hopefully to win some championships and to maybe don a Blue Jay hat one day in the Hall of Fame.”